Though the Varsity Blues women’s hockey team settled for silver against the Guelph Gryphons in the McCaw Cup Final on March 9, that game wasn’t the end of their journey. The team had their eyes set on an even bigger prize: the 2019 U SPORTS national championship. It’s been 18 years since the Blues won the national championship. This year, the underdog Blues had looked to make some noise against the top-seeded Alberta Pandas while fifth-year forwards Kassie Roache and Meagan O’Brien had hoped to end their varsity careers with a national championship. Unfortunately, they fell short.
Roache and O’Brien credit their extensive athletic backgrounds as the key to their success. Roache started playing hockey at the age of four. “I started skating when I was about two, my parents made a rink in the backyard. And then I started officially playing hockey at age four,” Roache says. O’Brien peaked a little later in her career. “I was put in the Timbits hockey school program when I was seven years old. So that was the first time I ever geared up in my equipment,” O’Brien notes.
Coming from a big city, O’Brien’s earlier life in Brampton was substantially focused on academics and sports. “Throughout my high school career, I played basketball, volleyball, and flag football,” O’Brien says. “I was always trying to be keen on my academics, but I was never one to stay inside and read books.” Her family was also involved with sports. “On my mom’s side I think all the boys in the family played hockey, and then my uncle also played soccer, I think that’s where I got the love of being a goalie.”
Roache comes from a much smaller town. “I’m from Corunna, Ontario, which is a small town near Sarnia,” she says. Her distinctively small hometown gave her a reason to focus on playing sports when she was younger: “There’s maybe 5,000 people when I was growing up.” Growing up, baseball, lacrosse, and hockey were her favorite sports to pass the time. Roache isn’t the only athlete in her family, as her three sisters play hockey and lacrosse as well. “My middle sister Carly, she’s still playing lacrosse right now. They just won their provincial title last summer, so that’s pretty cool.”
O’Brien and Roache both are avid Maple Leafs fans and they grew up idolizing several Leafs players. “If you look at my closet, you can see about five different sizes of a Matt Sundin jersey because I just kept outgrowing it. So that was definitely my favourite player growing up,” O’Brien explains. “I really liked Curtis Joseph and Tie Domi,” Roache adds.
The pressure of playing for one of the top schools in Canada can add some serious weight to one’s shoulders, especially as a rookie. Roache notes that her experience in her first year was quite different from what she was used to.
“When I came in, I think I was one of two people that didn’t play junior, which is the highest level. So not playing at a pace that the other girls were used to, I felt like I was a step behind,” she says. O’Brien agrees with the difference in the overall atmosphere as well. “Especially coming from a team where you were just a senior and you know, probably the leading goal scorer. You come in and you’re like a little fish in a big pond all over again,” she says.
Although playing for a university was certainly different, O’Brien tried to make the best of it. “As a rookie on the team there was obviously pressure to try to keep a spot on the lineup, but we just always tried to constantly remind ourselves to enjoy every moment, even if it wasn’t exactly what we wanted, or if we weren’t getting the ice time we now get,” she explains.
Now both players are in their final year, and have gotten used to the intense schedule of a student athlete.
“It varies heavily, day to day. Some days I’m up at 6:00 am and we’ll go until 9:00 at night. Other days I won’t have anything until 10:00 am or noon, and then I’ll be going till 10:00 pm,” Roache says. She notes that her daily schedule can be hectic and spontaneous. “It’s very hard to be able to wake up at different times everyday.”
This schedule can be very time-consuming, especially for a full-time university student. “You’re always looking at a practice for sure, but some days we have up to three practices,” O’Brien adds. “Daily, we always have at least one practice, and sometimes a workout. And then weekends are games, always.”
Although daily routines can be stressful and busy, they try to make the best of it. “I’d say friends and family help a lot,” Roache says. “To just have people in your life that are there to support your goals and just to help out in any way possible, like send meals up, or bring groceries when they come… I wouldn’t be able to do it on my own, I don’t think.”
O’Brien stresses the importance of friends and family too. “I have the privilege of living not too far away from all of my family in Brampton, so on our days off I’ll try to go have dinner with my parents or my grandparents, or my baby sister… you know, just remind yourself that hockey and school aren’t everything,” she explains.
O’Brien acknowledges that student athletes aren’t necessarily ‘celebrities’ on campus. “You can tell that there’s part of the student population who have no idea about the sports that exist here,” she says. At times, however, O’Brien does have some experiences with fans. “I was at Mount Sinai, my teammate broke her wrist. Someone saw our hockey backpack and came up to us, shook our hands and congratulated us on our success.”
Both take the time to be regular students though. “If I need a break from studying, I’ll just pick up a guitar and start playing,” O’Brien says. Roache, like a lot of students, enjoys watching Netflix in her spare time.
The two players recognize the importance of having a family-like bond with their teammates. “I feel like without the support from teammates, sometimes you wouldn’t make it through your days,” Roache says.
“We’ve always got each other’s backs. And don’t get me wrong, you go through trials and tribulations together… But you celebrate your successes with them,” O’Brien adds.
Despite their closeness, their playing styles on the ice contrast each other. When asked to describe herself, Roache says, “As a player, I would say annoying. Gritty. I’m very aggressive.” O’Brien, on the other hand, plays a more cautious game. “I try to avoid getting penalties, and I’d say I’m like a grinder.”
Despite their varsity careers coming to an end, their love for the game will never change. “I think it just brings a lot of people together and you kind of have a common goal,” O’Brien says. “You have your fans and family that come out to watch you,” she adds. Roache acknowledges what hockey has done for her. “It helps you grow, [develop] leadership skills.”
Both players will be walking away from the game to see where the future takes them. “I’m currently waiting on results of certain applications, but as for my next plans I don’t really know exactly where I’ll end up. But I know I want to end up in medical school and hopefully become a doctor one day,” O’Brien says.
Roache is in a similar situation. “My plans are pretty undecided right now, but I think that one thing that I will always have as a goal for myself will be to just bring what I’ve learned and what I’ve developed over the last five years into my workplace… whether that be a workplace or another hockey team.”
At the end of the day, being able to put on that jersey and represent U of T carries a deeper meaning for varsity players. “It’s an honour and a privilege, and I think I’m just going to miss that student-athlete life and you know, being surrounded by the best teammates ever,” O’Brien says.